LAST week, I talked about human trafficking and its dangers and impact on migrant workers, especially to our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the Middle East. This week, I will share with you the real-life experiences of some OFWs in Saudi Arabia who fell victim to trafficking or maltreatment but found their way home once again.
These OFWs are part of the group of almost 150 OFWs who availed of the amnesty program of the Saudi Arabian government, whom President Rodrigo Roa Duterte welcomed home soon after arriving from his presidential visit to the Middle East last April 17, 2017.
I was able to talk to three of them, and here are their stories:
“Ligaya” hails from Maguindanao. She applied as a household service worker (HSW) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Upon Ligaya’s arrival at UAE, she first stayed with her placement agency for 20 days before she was brought to her employer.
“I was only able to work with my original employer for six days before he sold me to his friend in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). When I learned about it, I was scared; I didn’t know what to do. I did not want to go but I could not do anything about it. So, I ended up in Riyadh where I was forced to work for three years. I kept begging and asking my employer to let me go home but he wouldn’t allow me,” Ligaya said.
Wanting to go home, Ligaya realized that both her passport and “iqama” (residence permit) were with her Emirati employer in Dubai. She was told that the same Emirati employer her asked her Arabian employer to first pay SAR2,000 (around P26,000) before he would return Ligaya’s travel documents. With no money to buy her freedom, Ligaya decided to run away and sought refuge with the “Bahay Kalinga,” the female shelter run by POLO in Riyadh.
Mymona is also from Maguindanao. Like Ligaya, she was employed as an HSW by a family in Damman in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia. When she arrived in Dammam, she was asked to clean several houses every day instead of being made to do household chores.
“Many times I asked my employer to take me back to my agency but she would not agree. That’s when I decided to run away,” Mymona said.
Mymona eventually had a common-law husband in Saudi Arabia, with whom she had three children. “After having my children and getting separated from my partner, I decided to go home,” she said.
She later discovered that her employment contract had been altered, with the job description in her original contract being changed from “household service worker” to “cleaner.”
“Jonel” is a native of Cebu City. Hired as a juice maker in a Turkish restaurant in Riyadh, Jonel was forced by his employer to work for 16 hours every day instead of the regular eight hours stipulated in his employment contract. Worse, he was not given any overtime pay and had no rest days.
Jonel complained about the contract violation to his employer but this fell on deaf ears. His foreign recruitment agency didn’t help either. He was just told to keep on working. After a month, Jonel could no longer take the exhausting and backbreaking work; he and other Filipino co-workers decided to run away.
Unable to find new work in Riyadh, Jonel and his group found their way to Jizan—a city located in the southwest corner of Saudi Arabia and north of the border of Yemen, where Houthi rebel fighters from Yemen are known to regularly cross the border in order to attack Saudi forces.
In that isolated corner of Saudi Arabia, Jonel worked as a flower arranger in a Saudi store for two years. He went back to Riyadh after an amnesty program was launched so that he could fix his papers and go back to the Philippines.
The three OFWs I interviewed share one thing in common: they all passed through the Department of Foreign Affairs’ (DFA) embassy personnel (for the issuance of travel documents or passport renewal) and the POLO’s labor attachés and OWWA’s welfare officers (for the processing of their exit documents and visas, etc.) on their journey back to the Philippines.
I make this point because these three agencies are the primary resources that our OFWs can and should tap if they find themselves in trouble overseas. OWWA, POLO and DFA officials in a foreign post like Riyadh, for instance, immediately assess the problem of our OFWs and determine what is required to help them.
Sometimes, this involves POLO’s labor attachés or OWWA’s welfare officers negotiating with an OFW’s employer for better working conditions or to abide by their employment contract. On rare occasions, it may call for rescuing our maltreated HSWs from their employers’ homes in the dead of night.
What is certain is that our labor attachés, welfare officers and embassy personnel in the different consulates around the globe, being the primary responders for our OFWs abroad, are always ready to tackle the various issues and problems brought by our migrant workers, often with little or no recognition.
Which is why Jonel’s testimonial is inspiring: “Tinatrato naming bangungot itong paglalakbay naming sa ibayong dagat. Hindi naming kagustuhan na tumakas o magkaroon ng problema sa ibang bansa. Katulad lang kami ng ibang OFW na nagpunta abroad para magtrabaho. Pero salamat sa OWWA at ibang sangay ng gobyerno at kami ay natulungang umuwi. Sa katunayan, naiinggit ang ibang lahi sa atin, dahil ang Pilipinas lang ang may sistemang ganito para sa kanilang manggagawa.” (We consider our experience in foreign shores as a nightmare.
We did not want to flee or deal with a problem in other countries. We are just like the other OFWs who went abroad to work. We are grateful to the OWWA and other government agencies for helping us return home.
Foreign workers from other countries envy us because only the Philippines has this kind of system to help its overseas workers.”)